Organizations have struggled with the concept of middle manager engagement since middle managers were part of the picture. And this phenomenon is not reserved for Diversity and Inclusion practitioners alone. Too often organizations forget the simple things when it comes to middle managers like respecting their knowledge and ideas and failing to capitalize on their full potential. When organizations begin treating their middle managers like leaders, like the life blood of the organization it will be a whole lot easier to engage them in just about anything.

If you work for an organization that can boast high middle manager engagement than your job is that much easier. If engagement is a problem with your middle managers across the board, consider this a tremendous opportunity. This is your chance to win their hearts and minds. Think about the potential that comes with being one of the only leaders in the organization that values and solicits their input. This simple gesture will not only solve your engagement problem but will also provide you with information that will enhance your strategic effectiveness. The key to engaging middle managers is involving them throughout the process. Nobody – middle managers, senior leaders or front line workers – wants to be mandated to do anything, particularly if there is a lack of understanding regarding the rational behind the mandate. One of my sons eats nothing and dinners had been a bit stressful with me demanding he eat what’s on his plate and he flat out refusing. When I started engaging him in the process of choosing meals and creating our shopping list, things improved considerably. If he’s involved in the actual preparation and cooking of the meal, he eats with zealous and can’t help but try to convince his brothers to do the same. I share this story because it brilliantly articulates the thought behind this argument. Involve your managers throughout the process and if you can convince them that it’s their idea you’ve won the battle. You’ve produced champions not roadblocks.

We can all artfully articulate the business case for diversity – access to talent, employee engagement, exchange of fresh ideas, drives innovation, entry to new growth markets, etc. If you truly believe the business case for diversity than your middle managers should be the easiest contingent to win over. Who understands the marketplace and workplace better than your middle managers? Middle managers are most affected by talent shortages, employee engagement and productivity, are best connected with the marketplace, and are closest to P&L goals.

The problem is our approach. Middle manager engagement is where your D&I strategy should begin not end. Don’t inform them about your Diversity and Inclusion strategy and mandate their participation in diversity efforts. Instead begin your engagement process by deepening your understanding of the business and what your middle managers know. Where are they or the organization struggling and why? Are there talent shortages in certain departments or skill areas? Where do your middle managers see the most opportunity for growth? Are there pressures to cut costs and how do your managers feel about that? Are there areas where process improvements can support bottom line performance? What does employee engagement look like and are there disparities in engagement among certain employee groups? How is this affecting their ability to meet their goals? A few simple questions focused on their jobs not yours can be instrumental in the engagement process.

This knowledge mining exercise can be accomplished in a few different ways. Consider hosting lunch and learns with small groups of managers – make sure they understand the learning is on your end not theirs. If you have the support of your senior leaders, ask to be included in upcoming management meetings and make sure you have adequate time on the agenda to accomplish your goals. Host your own management meeting where all managers are invited and the main agenda item is learning about the business.

Once you’ve taken the time to learn what they know, you’ve earned the opportunity to share what you know. Educate them on how a diversity strategy can impact the organization’s success. Tell them the Diversity and Inclusion resources that are in place that can support their goals and help solve their challenges. Talk about your employee resource groups and your strategic relationships and what kind of access those relationships provide. It is critical at this stage of the process that you don’t tell them how, just what.

Now’s the time to involve your managers in the strategic process. Engage in a brainstorming session where all middle managers are invited to come up with ideas that drive the Diversity and Inclusion strategy. How can D&I leverage existing tools and resources and expand on those tools and resources to support the goals of the business. Your middle managers can help inform decisions on what kind of training and resources are needed in order to help them better leverage diversity to meet their goals. Ask them how the office of D&I can help them become more inclusive managers and leaders and more effectively engage all their employees. What are their ideas for utilizing employee resource groups in support of very specific business challenges or opportunities and for leveraging D&I relationship to help meet specific pipeline development goals? At this time also gain their feedback on how they want to support and engage in these efforts.

And finally, share your Diversity and Inclusion strategy with your managers. Not all the components of the strategy are going to be driven by middle managers, but make sure their voices are evident. They will be much more vested in the success of the strategy if they helped craft it. In closing, we advise you to consider your managers a part of the solution rather than a piece of the problem. Think of your middle managers as your greatest champions not your toughest roadblocks.